"Sudan's last fighting season?"
Piece by John Prendergast in The Observer OnLine.
It's the end of the dry season offensive in Sudan - the government's helicopter gunships are blowing bombs and bullets into southern villages, while the opposition Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) conducts ground raids on the oil industry infrastructure that helps pay for the government's helicopters. Relief agencies, banned from many areas by the government, are begging for access to deliver food aid to a million people dependent on them for survival. More bodies are added to the shocking two million victims of violence and famine in Sudan's 19-year civil war.
Still, this is the best opportunity there has ever been to end the war. A number of factors - not least September 11th - have changed the dynamics of the conflict and are pushing both the government and the SPLA towards comprehensive peace talks. The British and American governments have given strong public commitments to pursuing peace negotiations and, along with Norway, are at the forefront of current diplomatic efforts. But the chance must be seized much more vigorously and quickly if this is to be Sudan's last fighting season.
Sudan's war is one of the world's longest-running and most deadly conflicts, with 4.5 million displaced people compounding the suffering and misery. It is primarily a fight between the central government, dominated by a well-armed and well-funded Arab Islamist elite, and southern insurgents opposed to the regime. Sudan's vast oil reserves, currently controlled by the government, are the greatest spoils of the war, but it is also a battle over land, religion, ideology and demands for self-determination.
Sudan's neighbours - particularly Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Eritrea - have stoked the conflict. Deep distrust and disputes over oil, water, land, religion and military power have created a climate of antagonism. Regional divisions have also blocked any serious peace process. The result has been two competing initiatives. The first is the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) chaired by Kenya, which affirms the right of self-determination for the southern Sudanese. The second, the Egyptian-Libyan Joint Initiative, was established in 1999, largely with the intention of undercutting the IGAD initiative.
Western involvement has also been divided. The European Union has pursued a policy of 'constructive engagement' with Khartoum while the US Congress, supported by intense lobbying on issues of religious discrimination and slavery, has been deeply critical of the Sudanese government. The Clinton administration in particular ramped up unilateral pressure against Khartoum for its abysmal human rights record.
The Sudanese government's involvement in the attempt to assassinate President Mubarak of Egypt led the UN to impose non-economic sanctions against Khartoum in 1996. The United States, critical of Sudan's radical Islamist agenda and support for Osama bin Laden, followed with comprehensive unilateral sanctions in 1997. After the terrorist attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, the United States bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.
But 11th September 2001 provided a turning point. The shock of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington provoked serious debate in Khartoum - where the regime was already seeking to end its international isolation. Concerned about possible retaliation as part of the US 'war on terror' and facing serious debt servicing problems, the Sudanese government declared that it would cooperate in fighting terrorism, denouncing Osama bin Laden and providing information about al-Qaeda to Washington.
Moves have since been made to end UN sanctions against Sudan and President George W. Bush appointed a special envoy, former Senator John Danforth, to determine whether the United States should involve itself more deeply in the peace process. Danforth's report to President Bush - which is yet to be made public - is understood to call for a continuation of direct US engagement.
In January 2002 there was another major development - the merger of the SPLA with the Sudan People's Democratic Front (SPDF), bringing together the fighting forces of two important opposition groups. The SPLA also struck agreements with the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF) in the north, the Umma Party and the Popular National Congress party. The government in Khartoum found itself increasingly isolated in the centre, and further motivated to negotiate.
A government helicopter gunship attack in the remote southern village of Bieh in February 2002 was a more recent catalysing shock. At least two dozen women and children lining up to receive food from international aid agencies were killed.
This tragedy put Sudan's government in the spotlight long enough for Senator Danforth to implement his first confidence-building test: a protocol focused on the protection of civilians. By late March, both the SPLA and the government had signed the protocol and agreed to other confidence building measures. The Bieh attack also accelerated implementation of a Swiss-US negotiated ceasefire in the Nuba Mountains. With Europe and the United States increasingly coordinating their positions, these agreements have been vital to establishing their credibility as serious negotiating partners. But they must be built on quickly - worrying signs of fragility are already appearing.
The escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged international attention away from Sudan, but it has inflamed local feeling with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in Khartoum in support of the Palestinians. On 6 April the commander of a pro-government paramilitary force appeared on Sudan TV declaring that, at the directive of the President, Sudan was once again setting up camps to train volunteer fighters for the international Islamic cause. The Sudanese government disassociated itself from the call, but it fuels uncertainty about the real level of its support for terrorist organisations. Meanwhile Sudan's Defense Minister has been to Moscow, shopping for weapons.
In the peace process, one of the greatest sticking points is the SPLA demand for self-determination. For much of the south, a vote on whether to remain part of a unified Sudan is a central claim. Senator Danforth and his team have been wrestling with this issue, which is especially sensitive for key US ally Egypt and which has been consistently rejected by Khartoum. However, in advising President Bush, Senator Danforth should avoid setting limits on the scope and meaning of self-determination.
The United States and Britain must intensify their engagement in Sudan. They should continue to work in their informal Troika, along with Norway, to help break the current 'traffic jam' of peace agendas. The first step should be for the Troika to form a partnership with IGAD, led by Kenya, and with the increased involvement of Egypt, to create one credible and effective peace process.
A full-time envoy should be appointed by the Troika to work with the IGAD envoy. They should be backed up by a properly financed technical team to provide impetus to negotiations and input on legal, security and other issues. An international contact group of key regional nations and others should be established to coordinate negotiating strategy, and particularly to address Egypt's concerns.
It is also vital that the international community helps pave the way for a democratic transition in Sudan by supporting inter-communal peace agreements, helping build up civil administration in opposition controlled areas, and bolstering civil society groups, independent media and professional associations.
But all of this must begin now. If the momentum for peace is lost, Khartoum may revert to radical policies that is has still not completely discarded by once again creating a home for international terrorism. The SPLA is also aware that its current military strength is likely to be overwhelmed by major government weapons purchases - and that its leverage is therefore limited. The opportunity is there - both sides are currently keen to strike a peace deal - and this moment must be seized before they recommit to resolving Africa's longest civil war on the battlefield.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002